The world is watching, Paris anyway, as politicians and citizens do the ConCon


Sketch:They were doing the ConCon in Malahide.

Did you catch any of the coverage of the Constitutional Convention over the weekend? It was streamed live on the web. No excuse.

There was a woman watching in Paris. We know this because she tweeted about it and her tweet was displayed on the big screen. Tom Arnold, the chairman, was delighted.

The world was watching, to be sure.

The lady in France wondered why so many politicians were speaking while so few “citizens” were getting the chance to contribute.

We were wondering why, on a Saturday afternoon in the City of Love, somebody would be looking at sporadic transmissions from a worthy talking shop in a seaside hotel in north Dublin.

They were doing the ConCon. Perhaps she was homesick.

Two big constitutional questions were up for discussion among the 33 politicians (hand-picked by themselves) and 66 citizens. These are no ordinary citizens. These are “random” citizens, carefully chosen by a market research company to reflect Ireland’s everyman and everywoman – balanced in terms of age, gender and regional location.

This weekend’s constitutional conundrums concerned voting age and the length of the president’s term of office.

Should the voting age be lowered to 17, should we reduce the term of office to five years, and should we align polling day with the local and European elections?

They talk about nothing else in the pubs these days. Families have fallen out over this issue. To amend or not to amend, that is the question.

Nine questions

Actually, there’ll be nine questions in all for the convention to consider over the coming year.

The members’ recommendations on possible amendments to the Constitution will be debated by the Oireachtas and those that pass muster with the Government will be put to the people in a referendum.

Given that this was the first full meeting of the convention, the participants were carefully negotiating the nursery slopes of this interesting exercise. It was all a little tentative, but that should change as the meetings go on and the subjects are meatier.

Two academic advisers briefed members on the issues before they held round-table discussions and question and answer sessions.

Chairman Tom Arnold made sure to include views from all the tables as he canvassed opinion from the floor. In the opening sessions, the politicians dominated.

To be fair to them, they’re used to public speaking. When nobody else at a table wanted to take the microphone, it was a politician who filled the void.

As the convention continues and the citizens get used to the format, it should be interesting to see if a divide appears between them and the public representatives.

Overseeing everything in the hall was a man in a long horsehair wig with a stern expression on is face. This was John J Hearne, architect of the Constitution, and his image was on a large black-and-white poster on a stand at the top of the room.

As a public event, it wasn’t the most exciting. When members went into discussion mode, their deliberations were private, and for those watching on the internet, the feed stopped. When the voting concluded, they went into private session in order to elect a steering committee.

Results of ballot

Finally, the results of the ballot. On reducing the voting age, it was a close-run thing, with 52 out of 100 in favour. The motion to reduce the term of the presidency was rejected by 57 votes, while the convention voted by an overwhelming 94 per cent to give the public a say in nominating candidates for the Park.

This pleased David Norris no end.

“It’s the majesty of the ballot box,” declared Tom.

Most participants seemed pleased with the way the opening meeting went. “It was very good, very well-organised and very informative” said Susan Brady from Wexford. “I very much enjoyed it and I feel mentally and intellectually stimulated,” she said after the discussions. She is particularly interested in the sessions concerning women’s rights.

“I think Ireland needs to change. I think people have become disconnected with the electoral process and that means they don’t get involved.”

Susan feels the convention goes some way towards redressing the balance.

It will take time to see if the ConCon makes any difference or if it is merely a window-dressing exercise by the Government: a blustery MacGill for the uninitiated.